Who is Jack Smith? The special prosecutor who could take down Trump

Department of Justice veteran has prosecuted corrupt politicians in the US and war crimes internationally. Now he is focused on the Republican and his inner circle, Andrew Feinberg writes

Tuesday 09 January 2024 16:43 GMT
Jack Smith and Donald Trump
Jack Smith and Donald Trump (AP/Reuters)

Jack Smith, the experienced war crimes prosecutor who has unveiled two unprecedented federal indictments against former US president Donald Trump, is no stranger to high-profile probes of public figures.

The US Department of Justice veteran oversaw anti-corruption prosecutions against multiple US politicians in his role as the head of the department’s public integrity section from 2010 to 2015.

One of those cases was against former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell, a Republican against whom he secured a conviction on bribery charges, though the case was later thrown out by the US Supreme Court.

He also won a conviction of former GOP representative Rick Renzi of Arizona, who received a sentence of three years in prison before being pardoned by Mr Trump.

A Harvard Law School graduate, Mr Smith also served in prosecutorial roles in US Attorney offices in the Middle District of Tennessee and the Eastern District of New York.

Prior to his appointment by US attorney general Merrick Garland, Mr Smith lived in the Dutch city of The Hague, where he had been serving as a “specialist prosecutor” overseeing investigations into war crimes in Kosovo since 2018.

He also served as a coordinator of investigations for the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court from 2008 to 2010, where he worked on cases against foreign government officials and members of militias accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Mr Smith returned to the US last November after being appointed as a special counsel by Mr Garland.

His first mission was to consider, “whether any person or entity violated the law in connection with efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the electoral college vote held on or about January 6, 2021”.

The second, which led to Mr Trump being indicted and arraigned in 37 federal charges, was about whether the former president had violated US laws prohibiting unlawful retention of national defence information and obstruction of justice.

Donald Trump (AP)

It marked the first time in US history that an ex-president — let alone one who is a declared candidate in the next presidential election — faced criminal charges.

On 13 June 2023, Mr Trump was arrested and arraigned on those charges in a federal court in Miami, where he pleaded not guilty. His longtime aide Walt Nauta was also charged in the case,

Coming face-to-face in the courtroom, several reporters described how Mr Smith was seen staring down the former president throughout the entirety of the arraignment proceedings.

On 27 July, Mr Smith hit Mr Trump with fresh charges in the case over accusations that he tried to delete Mar-a-Lago security footage so it couldn’t be handed over to investigators probing his handling of secret documents.

According to prosecutors, Mr Nauta and a new third defendant – Mar-a-Lago property manager Carlos De Oliveira – collaborated to hide the footage. Mr Nauta and Mr De Oliveira were also charged over the matter.

Mr Trump was also hit with a new charge – his 32nd for retaining national defence information – in relation to a new classified document described as a top-secret “presentation concerning military activity in a foreign country”. This document is believed to be a plan of attack on Iran, which leaked audio previously revealed Mr Trump discussing in a meeting with biographers and staffers at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club.

Mr Trump is expected to go to trial on 20 May 2024 in Florida.

But beyond the classified documents case, Mr Smith also investigated Mr Trump’s efforts to remain in office despite losing the 2020 election, including any role he may have had in inciting the insurrection on 6 January 2021 for which he was impeached but not convicted in the US Senate trial.

Donald Trump gestures at the end of his speech during a rally to contest the certification of the 2020 election results on the day of the insurrection (Reuters)

On 18 July, the former president said he had received a letter stating that he was a target of a federal grand jury probe.

Then on 1 August, a third indictment was brought against the ex-president.

A grand jury in Washington DC voted to charge Mr Trump on four counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding, conspiracy against rights and obstruction of, and attempt to obstruct, an official proceeding.

On 3 August, Mr Trump surrendered to authorities in DC to be arrested before appearing for his arraignment. Later in the month, the federal judge overseeing the case set a trial date for 4 March 2024.

In the courtroom, Mr Trump and his nemesis Mr Smith came face to face once again – staring each other down as the former president pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Jack Smith presiding during a war crimes court hearing at The Hague on November 2020 (AFP/Getty)

As he pursues charges against one of the most famous men in the world, Mr Smith has been thrust into the spotlight.

So will his prior experience be ample preparation for the punishing national attention to which he will now be subjected, including Mr Trump’s infamous social media broadsides?

Following his first federal indictment in June, Mr Trump lashed out at Mr Smith, accusing him of being a “Trump hater” and “a deranged ’psycho’ that shouldn’t be involved in any case having to do with ‘justice,’ other than to look at Biden as a criminal – which he is!”

Subsequently, Mr Trump’s allies and supporters began attacking Mr Smith, including Kimberly Guilfoyle, Matt Gaetz and Mark Levin.

“Special Counsel Jack Smith is atrocious,” the MAGA War Room tweeted on 13 June – the day of Mr Trump’s arrest and arraignment.

Far-right Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced an appropriations rider to the House floor on 12 June to “defund Jack Smith’s Special Counsel, his office and the investigation.”

“This is a weaponized government attempt to take down the top political enemy and leading presidential candidate,” she said.

Mr Smith has also faced repeated attacks from Mr Trump himself ever since that first federal indictment was handed down.

In his post-arraignment speech at Bedminster on 13 June, the former president laid into the special prosecutor.

“He looks like a thug,” he said of Mr Smith.

“He’s a raging and uncontrolled Trump hater, as is his wife, who also happened to be the producer of that Michelle Obama puff piece.” (Mr Smith’s wife, Katy Chevigny, is a documentary filmmaker who produced 2020’s Becoming.)

Mr Smith has been unfaltering in his response.

On 9 June, when the indictment was unsealed, he struck a defiant note – a note he appeared to continue to take in his courtroom stance.

“Adherence to the rule of law is a bedrock principle of the Department of Justice, and our nation’s commitment to the rule of law sets an example for the world,” he told reporters.

“We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”

After Mr Trump was federally indicted for a second time, Mr Trump‘s campaign released a statement calling the indictment “disgraceful” and “political targeting”.

“The lawlessness of these persecutions of President Trump and his supporters is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, the former Soviet Union, and other authoritarian, dictatorial regimes. President Trump has always followed the law and the Constitution with advice from many highly accomplished attorneys,” the statement from Mr Trump’s campaign read.

Following Mr Trump’s outbursts in his New York fraud trial that resulted in a gag order against him, Mr Smith requested protections for jurors and prospective jurors ahead of the former president’s trial in his election subversion case.

In early October, the judge presiding over a lawsuit from New York attorney general Letitia James against Mr Trump’s business empire warned he could face “serious sanctions” if he continues to speak out against members of the court after he falsely attacked Judge Arthur Engoron’s chief clerk on his Truth Social account.

In his filing to US district judge Tanya Chutkan on 10 October, Mr Smith said that among the “good reasons” for the court to impose certain restrictions on juror information, “chief among them is the defendant’s continued use of social media as a weapon of intimidation in court proceedings.”

The filing notes that “just last week the defendant escalated his conduct and publicly attacked” Judge Engoron’s clerk in New York Supreme Court.

“Given that the defendant – after apparently reviewing opposition research on court staff – chose to use social media to publicly attack a court staffer, there is cause for concern about what he may do with social media research on potential jurors in this case,” Mr Smith warned.

In October, Mr Smith also criticised Mr Trump for trying to postpone his classified documents trial until after the 2024 election.

Mr Smith pointed out that not only is Mr Trump asking “the Court to continue the trial for an additional seven months” but that a delay had already been rejected by the court “less than three months ago”.

The classified documents trial is set to begin in May 2024.

“The defendants provide no credible justification to postpone a trial that is still seven months away,” Mr Smith wrote.

“They are fully informed about the charges and the theory of the Government’s case from a highly detailed superseding indictment and comprehensive, organized unclassified and classified discovery.”

In December, the US Supreme Court agreed to consider a presidential immunity plea from Mr Trump, arguing that he should be protected from prosecution over his conduct as commander-in-chief, which prompted Mr Smith to put in a request that the justices expedite the process. They duly agreed.

Mr Smith’s team asked for them to determine “whether a former president is absolutely immune from federal prosecution for crimes committed while in office or is constitutionally protected from federal prosecution when he has been impeached but not convicted before the criminal proceedings begin.”

“The United States recognizes that this is an extraordinary request”, they wrote in the filing. “This is an extraordinary case.”

When Mr Trump attacked his intervention as “authoritarian”, Mr Smith retaliated by saying that the Republican’s claim “threatens to license presidents to commit crimes to remain in office”, hence the need for a decisive ruling.

It has since emerged that Mr Smith’s family were targeted with a nuisance “swatting” at his Maryland home on Christmas Day, when a member of the public (presumably a Trump supporter) reported a false allegation to law enforcement in order to get them to descend on the Smith residence.

Gustaf Kilander, Ariana Baio, Kelly Rissman and Alex Woodward contributed to this report

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